Scott Schwartz
interviewed by Leah Beeferman
Scott Schwartz

Scott and I met in New York some years ago, introduced by a close mutual friend who suggested we might have some common interests: mainly, our shared fascination with the concept of “measurement.” Needless to say, she was right. Part 1 of this interview — published here — took place between Summer 2020 and Summer 2021. It is our first formal discussion, a long time coming. Part 2 will follow, and at the rate we are going, there could be Parts 3 and 4 …

Scott Schwartz is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. He has a book coming out in Fall 2021, with Routledge, loosely based on the ideas explored here. Scott received his Ph.D. from the Anthropology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research focuses on the methodologies and materials employed in the collection of environmental data, examining the epistemological history of climate modeling and algorithmic governance more broadly. He served as a Quantitative Reasoning Fellow at Baruch College from 2014 to 2016. He has conducted archaeological fieldwork centered on historical ecology and conservation in Scotland, Iceland, and Italy. He has had various projects featured in art galleries in New York and Los Angeles over the past decade, including a recent collaboration appearing at the Queens Museum as part of their Chance Ecologies exhibit. In the summer of 2017 he was awarded an Art-Science residency grant from the National Science Foundation and Pratt Institute.


Leah: I recently listened to an interview you did on Montez Press Radio where you talk about the ideas behind your dissertation, “The Material Culture of Temperature: Measurement, Capital, and Semiotics.” I really enjoyed it, and it was a great reminder of how you and I have needed to sit down and talk about the overlaps in our interests. I’m excited to get straight into these ideas that are at the root of both of our projects, but I realize we may need to provide context for what are some big and potentially abstract concepts.

I’ll throw one of these ideas out there: that scientific systems of measurement might reveal more about themselves — as systems of measurement — than about what they actually measure. This, in turn, opens up a key question for discussion: what does it actually mean “to measure”? 

In light of that question, could you give a short overview of your work? I think that will provide some context for the litany of temperatures, large/weird numbers, archaeological and scientific concepts, etc. that are inevitably going to follow in this discussion.

Scott: Measurement is a very appropriate starting point! It’s actually where I got started on this “archaeology of temperature” endeavor. I had been doing archaeological fieldwork, as I still do. As one might imagine, excavations entail moving dirt around, recording the distribution of human-affected objects within the dirt, extracting them from the dirt for further measurement in the lab, recording various attributes (size/morphology, quantity, etc.). After a while this undertaking starts seeming incredibly absurd — in a good way, but perhaps not totally self-aware. Much of the recording methodology is irreconcilably subjective, such as recording the color and composition of dirt. More dubiously, however, archaeologists endeavor to understand the thoughts, feelings, political structures, belief systems, and economic and subsistence practices of archaic populations based on the diameter of ceramic bowls in centimeters, on the spatial distribution of settlements in kilometers, or changes of temperature in degrees Celsius — a noble ambition, but are these contemporary systems of measurement the best way to understand archaic sentiments?

This is painfully reductive: attempting to understand a people on the basis of a few sets of numerical attributes. It isn’t an entirely ineffective method of producing a type of knowledge, as you can sometimes find patterns and (ir)regularities that convey some meaning, for sure. However, these quantified attributes are modern, colonial, capitalist, industrial, enlightened inventions  — quantification as a form of capture. Neolithic farmers did not have centimeters or Celsius, for example! So, to some extent, this quantification of the past feels very much like a colonization of the past: rendering the past amenable to subjugation within the terms of colonial power (Foucault talks about this quantified control during the 1665 plague outbreak in London; archaeologist Stephen Mrozowski similarly discusses the colonialism of cartography).

So, somewhat subversively (I imagine), I’ve attempted to do my PhD in archaeology in a manner that eats away at the power of this colonial quantification from the inside. Through a somewhat absurd archaeology of temperatures, I adhere fairly closely to the methodology and interpretive paradigms of archaeology in analyzing/excavating the deluge of numbers that confront us daily: calories, prices, addresses, speed limits, GPAs, interest rates, GDPs, etc. There are definitely movements in archaeology which are pushing back against old positivist-determinist approaches with a critical theoretical framework. The aim of my project is to push this further by focusing on knowledge production, or epistemology, itself: I want to show how a people’s knowledge production practices underwrite its politics, economics, history, and worldview.

Specifically, my dissertation examines temperatures as artifacts. Such artifacts might include an electronic time and temperature display attached to a Dior billboard in New York. I excavate temperatures displayed on such devices, investigating how they were materially constructed: the assembly of the thermistor that detects thermal flux, where the parts come from, the companies assembling them, how the thermal fluctuation is translated into an electric signal, etc. 

More significantly, though, I excavate the cultural context of the temperature’s production. If it’s publicly displayed in New York, for example, it’s occupying incredibly expensive space. Is it “worth” it for a temperature to exist in this space? How? How does temperature interact with luxury fashion brands to create a meaningful event? Does the temperature lend its scientific normality to the fantasy of fashion advertising? Or is Dior “sponsoring” the temperature? 

So, I collect about 30 such public temperatures and engage in this type of investigation of each. The idea is that the proliferation of these artifacts — temperatures — can tell us something about the population that produces them. What I set out to do was to create a dissertation that kind of exists in two states simultaneously: 1) as an absurdist/tongue-in-cheek/irreverent undressing of colonial systems of knowledge production; and 2) an interrogation of the social impacts of quantification saturation. It’s both serious and ridiculous at the same time, like the performance of capitalism?

L: I love how many layers there are here. First, about what it means to measure in the first place, then about temperatures and how they are obtained and placed, and then about the discipline of archaeology itself. What you describe about your dissertation suggests, to me, a contemporary excavation of sorts… where there isn’t any “dirt” to dig around in, per se, but there is the “dirt” of contemporary society and its structures. I had never considered that could be an archaeological practice! I definitely want to hear details about the temperatures you discuss in your dissertation, which sound amazing, but let’s stick with measurement and archaeology more broadly for now.

My personal interest in measurement grows out of the now-familiar idea in quantum physics that making an observation both restricts and affects the thing that is being observed. It restricts because a measuring device can only measure what it is built to measure: a ruler can only measure flat things in inches or centimeters, for example. And it affects because, at the smallest scales of matter, a photon trying to measure a particle will physically move that particle when they bump into each other during the act of measurement. I imagine you’ve read Karen Barad, but there’s a chapter in her Meeting the Universe Halfway book where she describes these processes very clearly, from a scientific perspective. That chapter had a huge impact on  my artistic thinking. I started to think about how a camera is a kind of measuring device, and about photographs and videos as measurements themselves. I also began to see myself as an active observer/measurer rather than a passive recorder. 

So when you describe archaeologists “imposing” centimeters or Celsius on the societal remnants of past civilizations to quantify and theorize about their practices, feelings, belief systems, etc. … it does feel pretty incongruous. Like trying to measure the wind with a ruler — you can get something of worth, maybe, but it will leave a lot unquantified and unknown. That’s similar to what you discuss about archaeologists colonizing the past: describing those societies according to our contemporary terms and units, when their lives had little to do with any of it! 

Can you describe some of the steps that an archaeologist might take when trying to move from quantifiable units to societal/cultural theories? And have there been specific such case studies that have been particularly problematic for you?

S: I’m right there with you on Karen Barad! She’s definitely turned my world inside-out a few times. More on that later I hope… 

Concerning how archaeology produces knowledge and/or measures [disclaimer: what follows is a generalization of 1960s to 1990s archaeology; there are many ways of doing archaeology today]: 

An example of the rusty archaeology (usually called processualist, if it matters) that colonizes the past might be interpreting settlement spacing in ancient Mesopotamia as evidence of early state (“nation-state”) formation. There are some regions where no settlement is more than 15/20km away from another, which is roughly the distance you could go and come back in a day, if you were in a hurry. So, from this quanto-spatial observation, it has been interpreted that these regional clusters represent the first state-level societies. Archaeologists suggest this is evidence of the multi-tiered interconnected communication, exchange, and protection/taxation systems seen in modern iterations of statehood. Thus from this data, archaeologists will say the state originated in Uruk ca. 5,000 years ago (or 2,500 years ago in Mesoamerica), even though the concept of “statehood” (as archaeologists know it) is a product of early modernity.

This endeavor, if you ask me, presumes that European-style nationality and political organization are inevitable outcomes of human socialization. It naturalizes Euro-style statehood as a mode of social organization that has always existed, as opposed to one specific development within a contingent history. To say Uruk or Teotihuacan was just an earlier iteration of a Germany or a Singapore is certainly anachronistic at best, and possibly much worse! This effort, intentionally or not, has the effect of incorporating the past into controllable, dissectible categories that can be used to construct comparisons, assessments, projections: in other words, measurements. A concept like statehood can be used as a measure — e.g., this group is a state; that group has not attained state-level complexity — a metric quite meaningless to the people being “measured.” Whereas geographic colonization redefines the behaviors and beliefs of contacted peoples in the knowledge categories of the metropole, archaeology’s temporal colonizing incorporates archaic peoples into the knowledge system of the chronopole (the present). Anyway, this isn’t to say that the spatial distribution of Mesopotamian settlements is irrelevant or uninteresting. But using this quantified observation to impress Euro-colonial systems of social organization upon people with altogether different backgrounds and beliefs seems, at best, misguided.

I think this little anecdote/tirade actually dances around some of the Barad-ian ideas of measurement and creation. While she’s often talking about photons, it’s hard not to see the “performative” and “constitutive” aspects of measurement she discusses at play in this archaeological interpretation. That is, to some extent “The Akkadian Empire” comes into existence through our efforts to measure it — we measure things into existence. And to bring it back around to rulers for a second! There’s something along these lines that I like to say, and maybe Barad says it in so many words, too: a ruler doesn’t measure centimeters; it creates them. A ruler measures space/distance/length. It interprets distance into the (socially useful) terms of ruler-users: centimeters. And as boringly neutral as centimeters may seem, they are not without an entire history and politics. They were developed by people who valued certain aspects of their environment and certain ways of knowing. It’s not as though some people are capable of developing quantified metrics and some people are not, though anthropology’s early description of “primitives” and “savages” mistakenly claimed as much. Rather, some groups simply don’t place any social value on quantifying spatial extents! The same is true with temperatures. About four-hundred years ago some Europeans began to place social value in quantifying fluctuations in sensible heat. While an archaeology of centimeters might be fascinating, I went with the slightly more glamorous temperature.

L: First, I want to mention that I’m writing this in 95ºF heat, which — according to my weather radar app — “feels like” 104ºF. Which makes me wonder, do climate-related studies of past temperatures ever come into play when archaeologists try to “measure” the tendencies of past civilizations?

S: I’m glad you brought up the “Feels Like” temperature. I’m sure it’s quite obvious, but maybe still worth saying: it’s not like this metric is derived from some focus group or aggregated from trusted citizens that go outside and say “okay, I know the thermometer says 95, but dang if this doesn’t feel like 104.” It is derived from a formula that incorporates humidity, pressure, or wind chill in the winter. But when you see a “Feels Like” temperature on your app, this is a proprietary formula specific to your meteorology provider. AccuWeather (the evilest of the “Big Weather” companies) actually patented the phrase it uses: “Real Feel.” It also patented its “MinuteCast,” and even the phrase “Superior Accuracy.” Whichever company coined “feels like” must not have patented it, ‘cause it’s used by IBM and Apple meteorology products. They didn’t realize you could patent a phrase like “Superior Accuracy!” doesn’t have a “feels like,” just the standardized Heat Index.

But let me circle back to your question about archaeology’s use of temperature. Certainly archaeologists use temperature reconstructions to help them appreciate archaic peoples. These reconstructions of pre-thermometer heat flux are usually created from tree rings (which can go back about 7,000 years); ice cores from Greenland, Antarctica, or mountain glaciers (which can go back 800,000 years, but have much lower geographic resolution); or ocean sediment cores that contain mollusk shells (which can go back a million years). Using this evidence, archaeologists can delimit certain thermal eras like the Roman Warming Period (~200BCE to 400CE), the Medieval Warming Period (~900CE to 1250CE), and the Little Ice Age (~1400CE to 1800CE). And there are definitely efforts to explain movements of people and political upheavals based on these “deviant” periods: periods slightly warmer or colder than the 10,000 year average. Some people attribute the Bronze Age collapse of ~1150BCE to a cold spell. The halting of Norse movements into Greenland and Canada is usually attributed to the Little Ice Age. Most significantly, the advent of agriculture is sometimes straightforwardly seen as an inevitable occurrence from the end of the last ice age (~12,500 years ago). There’s undeniable correlations here, but it’s important to avoid such rigid Environmental Determinism. The Little Ice Age wasn’t a “problem” for the indigenous people of Greenland and Canada. It was a “problem” for the Scandinavian agricultural system. Likewise, the advent of agriculture is spaced out over 5,000 years, so there are definitely other socio-cultural factors involved in the adoption of agriculture than just saying as soon as the planet warmed up people immediately started farming. Maybe it’s a precondition, but certainly not the sole cause. 

More specifically, with the Little Ice Age and the sharp environmental instability in the North Atlantic ca. 1450, archaeologists have asked some interesting questions about expectations and traditions. If it’s difficult to know from year to year when the first and last frost will come, this certainly may cause social upheaval. But it should be reiterated that the people at the time did not know they were living through the “Little Ice Age” and certainly did not have access to the charts and graphs showing the deviation from mean temperature. Living through the Little Ice Age certainly had effects, but those effects weren’t caused by The Little Ice Age; they were caused by how societies responded to uncertainty.

L: Have there been any archaeological findings that were so incomprehensible that archaeologists just decided to let them remain mysteries — in other words, to purposely not project a Euro-centric perspective onto them? And, relatedly, are there any cases of strongly contrasting interpretations of the same observations?

S: That’s a fascinating way to frame it. No, archaeological findings aren’t usually designated as incomprehensible and just given their own conceptual space. Maybe they should be! Archaeologists don’t do excavations, make some finds, and then NOT interpret them. It’s kind of the job of archaeologists — or we think it is — to comprehend. Of course, the hope today is that more researchers are aware of efforts to decolonize archaeology (and history). Mindful of 19th and 20th century interpretations that reify colonial narratives, there are growing efforts to think beyond the idea that populations do things solely to maximize their production or calorie consumption or expand their territory.

There’s definitely tons of debate over what certain sites mean. Stonehenge, and many less famous sites, will never be “definitively” interpreted. This is kind of the fun! And with a site like Stonehenge, the public and popular media get to be in on the fun of interpretation too. Archaeologists know Stonehenge was a multi-millennia project that was “completed” (if that’s the right word) after 1,500 years of tinkering, additions, and subtractions. And most would agree that what Stonehenge meant in 3000BCE was probably not what it meant in 1500BCE, just as it probably means something quite different in 2020CE. 

The cliché is that when archaeologists are really flummoxed, they throw up their hands and say it’s “just ritualistic.” Ritualistic here means basically something non-utilitarian, based on superstitious or spiritual beliefs, which may be impossible to ever penetrate. While it may seem like this is “letting the mystery remain,” it also has its problems. It’s kind of dismissive, suggesting that ritual and spirituality don’t have any utility. It’s kind of saying “oh here is the absence of behaviors that comply with modern logic; we won’t deign to bother engaging with it, dialoguing with it, attempting to interpret it.” I’d like to see more speculative efforts to imagine the inner worlds of the builders of “ritualistic” architecture.

And by the way, Ancient Aliens-type explanations for Stonehenge are just as colonial! They’re based on the assumption that a population living 4,000 years ago couldn’t have been  “smart enough” to move heavy stones because that’s only something people with a steam engine can do. Speculative interpretations may never be proved right, but I think the exercise itself is good for archaeology and for knowledge production in general. It’s good for breaking the colonial hold on the imagination… 

An interesting artifact of debate I’d recommend taking a quick look at is the Antikythera mechanism — apparently a Greek scientific instrument salvaged from the Mediterranean. It seems to have numerous functions relating to astronomical observation or calculating. In recent years it has undergone intense diagnostic scrutiny, subjected to all manner of advanced imaging reconstructions. But for most of the past hundred years, archaeologists have been stumped by it. But this stumping can actually be incredibly fruitful — make you think harder —  than simply deploying the latest radar imaging technologies. 

L: I am reminded of a podcast I heard a while back. It was an interview with a woman of Mayan descent. She mentioned the now-familiar idea in contemporary physics that matter is primarily empty space. She said that Western scientists are so focused on the small percentage of matter that is solid, whereas the Mayans were much more interested in the immaterial part: the energetic. This feels similar to what you said earlier — that some societies would have no reason to place social value on quantifying space the way Western archaeologists do.

Which brings me back to temperature, and your choice to study it instead of length, for example. Temperature is interesting, because I think we experience it somewhere in-between the material and the immaterial. Temperature as a concept feels abstract, but its effects are so very real — especially on a hot day! Length and weight make me think of the standardized kilogram which, as most people know, is based on a solid sphere of material safe in some vault in France. And on the other end of the spectrum would be atomic clocks, which determine the actual duration of one second based on the fluctuations of a cesium atom — something that is completely inaccessible to us in our everyday experience. But temperature falls in the middle. It gets to be both something we feel and something we quantify. Maybe that’s a good segue for you to introduce us to how you think about temperature. What quantifies it, how do we measure it?

S: I can’t say much about Mayans specifically, but there’s definitely much to be said about notions of figure and ground and Western ways of seeing; some like to trace this back to Renaissance aesthetics (see Aby Warburg or Ernst Cassirer). It reminds me of an old archaeological adage: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” — meaning, just because you don’t find something doesn’t mean there isn’t something to find. This is true as far as it goes, but one wonders what would constitute evidence of something not existing. As an exercise in mischievous measurement, I’ve always wanted to undertake an investigation into absent phenomena, like how many times per day I don’t fall down; how many commercial transactions don’t occur per day…

Getting back to temperature, I’m with you 100%. I didn’t just study temperature because it’s more fashionable! Temperatures do skirt, or transgress, the line between material and discursive objects — discursive, meaning concepts like justice or love. This is a distinction that is worth challenging, just like the nature-culture divide. Barad does it well. A stone, which is material, is also always discursive—it sends and receives signals (i.e. other objects respond to the stone’s hardness by walking on it or its shape by getting shade from it just as the rock responds to the wetness of rain by getting slippery or the heat of the sun by cracking). Likewise, justice cannot exist without material configurations. It’s just as important to de-naturalize discrimination as it is to re-materialize justice. 

Doing this dissertation, a reason occurred to me why temperature “feels real” in a way centimeters don’t. Attributes like temperature, velocity, and density are very aptly called intensive properties, while kilograms and meters  — weight and length — are extensive. Key differences are that extensive units are composed of divisible iterations. You can cut ten centimeters of rope in half and have five centimeters of rope. Thus, there are ten distinct centimeters inside of ten centimeters, if that makes sense. This is not the case with intensive properties. There are not 10 Celsius(es) inside of 10ºC. When you cut a log in half it doesn’t change its temperature or density. 10ºC is not more degrees Celsius than 5ºC, it just describes a different arrangement of particles. Likewise, there are not 50mph inside of 70mph. If it matters, Aristotle didn’t think intensive properties could or should be quantified. 

[Side note: kelvins are an extensive conversion of the Celsius scale, so there are 5K inside of 10K; note that when you see a kelvin it does not have the º symbol. Kelvins are not degrees. Only in 2019 was it decided what a Kelvin is (something to do with the Boltzmann constant) … maybe a topic for another day.]

I think most intensive properties have some kind of tangible quality. Depending on the circumstances, if you’re moving at exceptional velocities you can feel it in your body; if you’re surrounded by exceptional temperatures or pressures, you can feel them too. This is a good segue for getting into how temperature is measured and quantified because, at the end of the day, not much separates velocity and temperature. A good starting point is to note that temperature was invented about two-hundred years before it was defined. Knowing this allows some freedom in thinking about temperature.

L: I’m going to ask you to give a short history of temperature, because that sounds fascinating! And from there, we can get deeper into the content of your dissertation. But let’s make that Part 2: Temperature, which will be published soon.